Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

UP academies raise the bar for urban schools

Jacob Hernandez (left) and De’Andre Lebron experimented with homemade boats filled with pennies during a science class at UP Academy Leonard Middle School in Lawrence.
Wendy Maeda/Globe staff/file
Jacob Hernandez (left) and De’Andre Lebron experimented with homemade boats filled with pennies during a science class at UP Academy Leonard Middle School in Lawrence.

It’s Friday afternoon, and kids at UP Academy Holland in Dorchester, the former Holland Elementary School, are tackling a math problem whose complexity leaves one asking this question: Are these really fifth-graders doing this?

Hands go up as the teacher poses questions. Fingers wiggle in silent encouragement as students give answers. Fingers snap to signal agreement.

You see the same kind of lively, engaged learning environment when you step into other classrooms there or at UP Academy Dorchester, once the Marshall Elementary School. In one, kids are hard at work on reading assignments. In another, the excitement is audible as the teacher outlines the choices for enrichment activities.

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Talk to students and it quickly becomes clear that they love their school because it feels fun and safe and is focused on making sure they’re learning.

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And they are. The recent MCAS results were big for the UP (as in, Unlocking Potential) Education Network, which now runs three schools in Boston and two in Lawrence. (Two of the Boston schools, the former Gavin Middle School in South Boston and the former Marshall, are in-district charters that Boston picked UP to set up and run; the state turned the Holland over to UP after putting the school into receivership.)

For example, UP Academy Dorchester posted the biggest one-year increase in combined math and English MCAS proficiency. UP Academy Boston, the former Gavin, showed the most student growth in math of all schools serving the middle grades. In Lawrence, UP Academy Oliver quadrupled its sixth-graders’ proficiency rate in math.

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Indeed, UP academies are helping demonstrate how urban schools can be transformed. Which is part of the plan. When cofounders Scott Given, a former teacher and Harvard Business School graduate, and Yutaka Tamura, another education innovator, started the nonprofit education network in 2010, “one of the things we wanted to prove is that if you take the same student population that has always been in a school, and you surround them with really strong educational practices, including many of the practices some charter schools are using, those same students can succeed at really high levels,” says Given.

That’s important for the debate, since charter-school opponents often dismiss strong charter results almost reflexively. One common argument is that charter students succeed mainly because they have more involved parents. Another is that charters do well mostly because they usually have fewer English language learners or students with disabilities.

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But UP strives to keep the same students when it restarts a school. UP Academy Dorchester, for example, has retained 80 percent of the former Marshall school students, a significantly better rate than the Marshall itself had.

What’s really changed is the educational approach. Not only do kids spend an extra hour and a half a day in school, but the school year is also five days longer than the Boston school system’s 180 days.

The faculty is different as well. Upon taking over a school, UP recruits its own teaching staff. (UP invites the former faculty to reapply, but few do, Given says). If they aren’t already members, teachers must join the Boston Teachers Union, and are paid according the union scale. They work a considerably longer day and year, however: nine hours rather than the contractual 6.5-hour day in Boston’s regular elementary-school day or the 6-hour-and-40-minute day for regular public middle schools. They also work much of August, concentrating on professional development, teaching methods, and team building.

Now, that rigorous a schedule obviously isn’t for everyone. Still, UP hasn’t had any trouble recruiting teachers willing to embrace it; some 4,100 educators applied for 60 jobs in its first school restart, Given says.

To make school enjoyable, UP features songs and celebrations and enrichment like music and visual arts, plus phys. ed. Expectations are high, with an emphasis on charting a path to college. Kids who need extra help get tutoring sessions.

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Although some philanthropic money goes into planning a restart, once open, an UP academy doesn’t cost the district any more than a traditional school would.

Tamekia Groce, a Dorchester mother whose son attended the Marshall and is now a fifth-grader at UP Academy Dorchester, says he has benefited greatly from the higher expectations, stronger teaching, and extra help UP provides.

“It is so much better now,” she says.

If only all city parents could say the same about their kids’ schools.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.